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I will freely admit that this question is based in ignorance of languages other than English (well, American). But do other languages have the concept of rhyming? Thinking back to my few Spanish classes in high school 25 years ago, I cannot think of very many words that I would consider to be rhyming. Mostly due to the different verb forms and feminine/masculine noun forms, it seems like it would be difficult to build a coherent sentence the way (my understanding of) the language works. Other languages that are even more complex just seems impossible to me that rhyming occurs easily or frequently.

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    I believe that rhyming originated somewhere in the vicinity of Nantucket, but I could be wrong. – JeffSahol Jul 16 '12 at 20:31
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    For a lovely example of rhyme in Portuguese, see the song "Garota de Ipanema". – MetaEd Jul 16 '12 at 21:30
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    Also, any voice major will tell you that there is a rhyming tradition found in Italian, French, and German art songs and arias! – musicallinguist Jul 16 '12 at 21:57
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    I would re-phrase your question to a direct opposite: Is there any language that has no rhyming? – bytebuster Jul 18 '12 at 5:34
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Rhyming is not a uniquely English phenomenon. It is present in Chinese, for example. As one article puts it, "Chinese words are made up of so few possible syllables that it’s almost hard NOT to rhyme." (original article: Rhyming in Mandarin)

The main difference between rhyming in English and Chinese, however, is that Chinese rhymes must take into account both the pronunciation of the syllable and the tone (i.e. the tones must match).

Rhyming was an integral part of classical Chinese poetry and there were even large dictionaries of Chinese characters indicating which characters rhymed with each other. (Since the pronunciation of Chinese has changed over time, many classical Chinese poems don't actually rhyme anymore when read using modern Chinese pronunciation, however.)

Your question mentions the possible difficulty of constructing rhymes that form coherent sentences in some languages. This is a valid point, for example, for languages that have different syntax than English. Tibetan and Japanese generally have SOV (subject-object-verb) word order where the verb always comes last. Thus if you are constructing a poem in these languages and you want the last words/syllables of two sentences to rhyme, you would be forced to find two verbs that rhyme with each other.

I imagine there are other languages which are also easier to rhyme in than English due to differences in syllable structure. Hawaiian language, for example, has a (C)V syllable structure, which means that all syllables always end in a vowel. Thus I imagine it would be fairly easy to rhyme in Hawaiian.

But then again, perhaps other languages have different criteria for what constitutes a "rhyme".

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End-rhyming is actually not even an originally English mechanism! Old English poems didn't rhyme like we do now. Instead, alliterative verse was widely found in the early Germanic languages. Alliterative verse uses head-rhymes (alliteration) and stress-timing, instead of modern end-rhymes and syllable-timing.

The modern English rhyming scheme was borrowed from the Classical and Romance traditions.

As you say, end-rhymes are more natural to languages that make wide use of suffixal inflections (like most Romance languages and Latin/Greek). Syllable timing is more natural to many of these languages, too, since the interval between syllabic nuclei is approximately equal. Vowel quantity also played an important role in Latin and Greek meter. Stress-timing on the other hand, where the interval between stressed syllables is approximately equal, is more natural to languages like English and Portuguese that have notable vowel-reduction processes. And since English has nearly no suffixal inflections, end-rhymes are less common though, of course, still plentiful in most cases.

See my answer to a similar question on English.SE for a fuller explanation of the verse form.

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    However, any kind of syllabic rhyme was rare in Greek and Latin, at least in the literary styles. Poetry was almost exclusively based on metre, which in turn was based on the length of syllables (quantity). – Cerberus Jul 17 '12 at 16:47
  • @Cerberus Good point about quantity in the Classical Languages. – Mark Beadles Jul 17 '12 at 16:56
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Well, Mark covered a lot of what I would have said. So I'll simply add a couple other types of rhyming and languages that prefer them:

  • Biblical Hebrew was fond of rhyming of ideas, where consecutive lines express similar concepts rather than similar sounds.
  • Apart from Western influences, Japanese seems quite fond of onomatopoeia: rhyming between the sound of a word and its concept.
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Signed languages have rhyming. Words are said to rhyme when they end in the same phoneme, that is, when their phonetic material matches on certain parameters. These parameters include location, configuraton, and movement of the articulators. eg, CAT and MAT share the ending: {low front vocalic-alveolar stop} In signed languages the parameters include location on the body where the sign is made, handshape and movement of the signing hand. So if two signs are perceived as similar due to shared phonetics they are said to rhyme. American Sign Language has a huge body of poetic literature.

Unit 12 of this online course describes how it works: http://pages.citebite.com/j3m3s4v9viid

some academic papers on the subject: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sls/toc/sls2.1.html

and a news story: http://www.vnews.com/10302010/7236248.htm

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Rhyming is definitely not an English only phenomenon. If you google “rhyming poetry X”, where X is a language of your choice, you’ll find many of examples. A particularly famous case is the eleventh century Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, in Persian, which from memory has an AABA rhyme scheme, with as many as three syllables rhyming at the end of each A line.

Some personal favourites:

Russian (Akhmatova) in transcription, with ABAB rhyme:

za lozh menya predavshix gub
za myortvy xolod glas
za to chto mir zhestok i grub
za to chto mog nye spas

And some German (George), interspersed couplets:

Sprich nicht immer
Von dem laub ·
Windes raub ·
Vom zerschellen
Reifer quitten ·
Von den tritten
Der vernichter
Spät im jahr.
...

And, getting back to your question, Spanish (Lorca), ABBA:

Éste del cabello cano, 
como la piel del armiño, 
juntó su candor de niño 
con su experiencia de anciano; 
...
  • Heh...I was trying to figure out what ABBA song that was from.... – Dave Nay Jul 26 '12 at 15:52
  • Lol, exactly the same thought occurred to me the moment I wrote it down – Daniel Harbour Jul 28 '12 at 10:36
  • Oh, it just occurred to me. The last word in the second line of the Russian should be glaz (but the z is somewhat devoiced and so rhymes with spas). – Daniel Harbour Jul 28 '12 at 10:38
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"Niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru". In Japanese that means "In the garden there are two chickens".

Niwa (Garden) ni wa (as for in the...), niwa (2 winged things) niwatori (chicken[s]) ga iru (exist).

"Honmono homo no mono" is another Japanese one I heard in San Francisco. I have heard some Polynesian rhymes, but not sure if they were after the introduction to English speakers and their rhymes.

  • Could you clarify what the "niwa" and "honmono" sentences have to do with the original question about rhyming? Also, could you back up the claim about "real" haiku with examples or a reference? – musicallinguist Jul 17 '12 at 18:44
  • They are short rhyming sentences that are popular in Japan, not in English based societies, showing that languages other than English use rhyming? As for the haiku, I take it back. There were some that rhymed, but not the majority, the rule I remembered that English haikus forget was the 5-7-5 rule, not really any rhyming. – BillyNair Jul 18 '12 at 2:28
  • I see. But these sentences are plays on homophony, not rhyming. I guess two words that sound exactly the same segmentally do technically rhyme, but growing up in a bilingual (English and Japanese) household, I remember learning the "niwa" sentence at some point and I never considered it to contain rhymes. The equivalent in English would be something like "We weigh whey way too often" (admittedly nonsensical, but you get the point). – musicallinguist Jul 18 '12 at 3:25
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English language is very poor for composing rhyming poems. This is because it has no inflections and very varying pronunciation. In most cases the English rhyme is only approximate.

Slavic languages, say, Russian are much more suitable for rhyming. Similar can be said about Romance languages, German, Greek and others.

  • -1: This sounds more like a rant, not an attempt to answer the question. – bytebuster Apr 7 '16 at 17:58

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